Page last updated at 01:34 GMT, Saturday, 28 November 2009

Georgia concerned by 'link between gambling and drugs'

With just weeks to go until a controversial new law on casinos takes effect in Georgia, health workers in the capital, Tbilisi, say they have uncovered a worrying link between gambling and drug addiction. Tom Esslemont reports.

Gia Shengelia
Gia Shengelia finds gambling a much stronger addiction than drugs

It's the middle of the afternoon and Tbilisi's busiest casino, the Ajara, is already packed with gamblers.

It is full of grizzled chain-smoking men. They sit hunched at tables under gaudy crystal chandeliers chatting over the din of lounge music and the constant whirl of roulette wheels.

Managers at the Ajara say they receive 1,100 clients every day.

Gia Shengelia has just embarked on another night in search of luck. He takes a long drag on his cigarette before telling me that gambling is not his only addiction.

"Gambling is a much stronger drug than real narcotics," he says. "I used to take all kinds of hard drugs. You can stop using drugs - like I did - but it is impossible to stop gambling."

Gia, 55, says it took him years to give up drugs: Others are finding it equally hard.

Fees slashed

Across town, therapists at the Anti Violence Network - one of the city's best known drugs NGOs - say the gaming trend is fuelling the city's drugs problem. And the new law, they say, could make the problem worse.

From 1 January 2010, licence fees for new casinos will be slashed from as high as $3m (£1.8m) to as little as zero in designated locations.


Worries over Georgia gambling

Drug counsellor Manana Solokhashvili says that will be bad news for the clients of her drop-in clinic and for the 13% of Georgians who are officially unemployed.

"The problem faced by gambling addicts and drug addicts is the same," she says. "The disease is addiction. More than 90% of the people who come to our clinic looking for therapy are addicted to both."

The new law will encourage more people to fall on harder times, rather than encourage them to try to find a job, she adds.

Statistics show there are 270,000 drug users in Georgia, which has a population of 4.3 million.

Popular pastime

Soso, one of Ms Solokhashvili's patients who says he is in his thirties, says gambling perpetuated his drug habit.

Had I stopped gambling I would have stopped using drugs sooner
Former drug and gambling addict

"If I hadn't gambled I would have seen things differently," he says. "The addiction is the same. Had I stopped gambling I would have stopped using drugs sooner."

You don't have to spend much time in the streets of Tbilisi to realise how popular gambling is in this society.

Although there are only three casinos in the city, there are more than 300 amusement arcades.

In one central street the colourful hoardings of five or six of them light up the street with their bright red and yellow neon lights advertising their alluring names - Las Vegas, Jackpot, Monte Carlo.

Few of them will let me in, largely because the managers say they are angry at being portrayed in the media as drugs havens and crime spots.

After some negotiating the manager of Maxi Slot club - who asks to be called Irakli - accepts the offer of an interview.

State income

Inside the dingy room there are a dozen slot machines, where a couple of young men are busy trying their luck.

We want to see more tourists not only come to Tbilisi but to our Black Sea towns too. That is why we have dramatically cut casino start-up costs
Lasha Tordia
United National Movement

I ask Irakli whether he thinks he has a responsibility towards young people, given the allegations made by the Anti Violence Network.

"People come here for entertainment or maybe to win money," he says. "It has nothing to do with drugs. In any case, one business leader like me is not responsible for the whole trend.

"But, gambling is a good income for the state - so that's probably why the government wants to encourage it."

He has a point. Just as Georgia is liberalising its gambling laws, others in the region are tightening them.

Azerbaijan banned gambling in 1998. Armenia has also announced that it intends to restrict gaming to three regions. Earlier this year, Russia confined casinos to far-flung parts of the country.

No downside?

Clearly, the Georgian government has the economy in mind as it prepares to sign into law the amendments. It says its new legislation will attract foreign gaming companies and much-needed investment to less visited resorts and towns.

Roulette table
Some argue gambling provides a good income for the state

Lasha Tordia, a member of the ruling United National Movement, does not see a downside to the law.

"I personally don't see the link between gambling and drugs," he says. "What we are looking to do is encourage regional development.

"We want to see more tourists not only come to Tbilisi but to our Black Sea towns too. That is why we have dramatically cut casino start-up costs."

There is no proven link between Georgia's drugs culture and its people's gambling habits. Of course, the new law might sustain addictions like Gia's by simply offering more places and more towns in which to have a flutter.

But back at Tbilisi's most popular casino, no player looks ready to quit. As they fiddle nervously with their pink, brown and blue plastic gambling chips the spinning roulette wheels whirl round adding to the cacophonous, intoxicating atmosphere.

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